Starting in the snowy mountain peaks that mark the border between Chile and Argentina, the Southern Patagonian Ice field is a behemoth layer of compressed snow just smaller than the entire area of Washington State. It dominates the surrounding environment on a massive scale, denying wildlife the chance to survive, spontaneously producing its own weather patterns, and generating glaciers that stretch miles long hundreds of yards thick. One of the grandest and most dynamic of these ever-changing walls of ice is the Perito Moreno; it also happens to be one of the most accessible to humans.
This combination of fortune has turned the nearest town, El Calafate, into Argentine Patagonia’s most popular tourism destination - as well as its most expensive. Entrance to the park runs a shocking 260 pesos, while a bus there and back will set you back another 400 pesos, amounting to a standard day of almost 70 dollars depending on your exchange rate.
Armed with this information, Stefje and I woke early on Saturday morning and were on the road before 7am, our thumbs stuck out on the end of town. Most of the cars were tour group mini vans and passed us by without a second glance, but after a few minutes a carpenter working on a project inside the park pulled over and was more than happy to take us with him. While driving, Aldo kept us immensely entertained with his personal history of the area and a guided tour from his unique perspective, railing on the Chilean driving style just as much as Chileans complain about Argentinians.
We wound out of town and then sped across the flat nothingness that characterizes the Patagonians steppe, but in the distance lay the Andes mountains, snow-capped and sun-kissed in beautiful morning light.
To our right the entire time lay the immense body of water known as Lago Argentina, the second largest in the entire country and an eerie sight with the light reflected off of the turquoise surface. Soon enough we arrived at the entrance point, bidding farewell to the memorable Aldo and thanking him profusely for our unique introduction to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
We stepped onto the metal boardwalks that extend to the tip of the Magellan Peninsula, putting tourists within 50 yards of the front wall of ice, and it was apparent that our early morning wake up had paid significant dividends. At one of the most notoriously tourist-riddled sights in the country, we were the only ones in sight. As if to reward us, nature hung a rainbow suspended over the jagged wall of ice on the right side, adding another element of mystique to our view.
From the entrance to the series of walkways, our vantage point yielded a deep look into the expanse of the massive glacier tongue coming down out of the mist-covered mountains. Even someone who has never even heard of Game of Thrones would have to be inspired and entranced by this tremendous insurmountable wall of ice. If there are ice zombies in this world, they definitely live beyond the Perito Moreno wall.
As we continued down the stairs to the overlooking balconies, it immediately became clear why glaciers like this one are capable of retreating or advancing up to two meters in a single day: in the peaceful morning light birds chirping were continuously interrupted by the intense sound of ice calving off and falling into the lake from a height of 40 or 50 yards high. The constant threat of spying one of these awesome breaks had us swinging our necks back and forth along the front wall, which is an astounding 3 miles long and an average height of 240 feet!
Sure enough we ended up spotting and hearing plenty of ice splinters, but the shocking part was that massive cracks that reverberated deeply through the surrounding mountainside looked like just tiny little pellets of snow and ice on the way down, reminding us that even up close we were severely underestimating the size of this monster.
At the point where the glacier comes closest to land a thick plate of ice had formed, making water impassible. The water that usually flows from the arm of Lago Argentina on our left to the main body of the water on the right was blocked by the natural dam, part of a natural cycle that ends with the water pressure blasting through the ice every few years.
More surprising than the 240 foot wall in front of us was the constant reminder that our eyes could only glimpse less than half of the ice, meaning that the total ice depth was more than 550 feet. The underwater ice was a deep blue, upending and surfacing itself in eery alien images of ice cubes popping up from beneath the surface.
As we descended closer to eye level the jagged towers of ice started dwarfing our correspondingly tiny bodies, leaving us slack-jawed at the raw power of this huge ancient formation of ice. Now stationary or only slightly increasing in size, Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world that isn't retreating, a testament to the depth and power of its source, the Patagonian ice field.
Beyond the glacier in the distance we could see nothing but ever-increasing fields of ice; every now and then when the wind shifted we would get a taste of the icy blasts which make the terrain up there so inhospitable.
Eventually the walkways started filling up with other arriving via tour busses and rental cars, but that couldn't diminish our enjoyment. During our exploration of the different angles, we heard a thunderous crack from the right side and whiplashed around to inspect the damage. Just above the tree line we could see a chunk larger than a car falling off the uppermost crust, leaving us speechless as it dropped precipitously into the clear blue water. The break initiated a small tidal wave, redistributing the ice into a semi-circle around the point of impact.
Over the rest of the morning we found our favorite vantage points and stopped for a while each time to take in the view, listening intently to the constant re-arranging of ice of the dynamic changes occurring right beneath our eyes. We could have spent a whole day or ever two staring in awe at the marble blue wall of cracked ice and compressed snow, as it's definitely one of the most fantastic things I've ever seen. Yet in the afternoon we chose to retreat and hitchhiked back into town to grab an afternoon nap and prepare for the journey to our next stop in El Chalten.
PATAGONIA ON A BUDGET
Looking for more information on how to make your own dream vacation in Patagonia a reality for just $30/day? Check out my e-book, Patagonia On A Budget. Inside, you'll find:
The best value on the craziest adventures
Prices and details for accommodation, transportation, and activities in every destination
Detailed maps and itineraries of the most popular backpacking routes
Recommended campgrounds with the best rates and facilities
Instructions and safety advice for hitchhiking
The only packing list you'll ever need for camping
The electronics, websites, and applications to depend on during your expedition
A special bonus guide on packing and cooking during long hikes through national parks